Over the past decade the world has become multipolar, but not multilateral. The nation-state and the Westphalian state system, despite constant rumors of its demise, is alive and well. Worse, from a European perspective, is the fact that the continent may not matter all that much in the new global configuration
From a western point of view, it is a world filled with strange and exotic new powers— such as India, Brazil, and China—that up until now no one has had to think about very much. For the first time in hundreds of years, the world will not be dominated by western powers ; international relations has become truly international, as the globe is not just the playground of Europe and the US. However, very little thought has been given to what this actually means.
But if the Great Recession has made multipolarity apparent to all but the most die-hard neocon, it is not the world of French fantasies either. The problem is that when Eurofederalists dreamed of a multipolar world to replace American dominance during the Cold War, implicit in their thinking was the certainty that the continent would emerge as a rising power to counteract American influence. Now that we truly face the dawn of a multipolar era, the irony should be lost on no one that it is Asia, rather than Europe, that holds the key to, along with America, determining the stability of the new order.
In the new era, America is in relative decline ; but Europe is in no better shape, and in fact may be in far worse. Europe’s demographic problems are the worst of any of the great powers-there are simply far too few people coming along to support the overly generous safety net that has so beguiled the European populace. This inescapable reality will force policymakers there to try raise taxes (hardly possible), cut its generous benefits system (hardly popular), or take in a massive number of new immigrants to pay for it all (hardly likely). As such, Europe will matter less and less, even as life continues to be relatively pleasant.
The Copenhagen deal—crafted by South Africa, Brazil, India, China, and the US—is a foretaste of the feast to come. Unless it gets it act together as well as taking a far more realist line in global politics (ie other great powers such as China do not behave like merely another European state), Europe better get used to being text-messaged about global outcomes.
Even worse for the continent is the nature of the new rising powers. Forget the BRIC acronym and think about the rising powers individually for a moment—Brazil, Russia, India, China—one quality they all share is to be countries deeply suspicious of the multilateral process, seeing it as a western plot to rein in their sovereign rights and obstruct their national interests. These states, representing the future global order, are more nationalistic, more interest based, and less likely to pool sovereignty than has even proven true of the Americans, who have so driven European functionalists into a lather.
Unless Europe and America quickly make common cause over policies in terms of global governance issues, look for a world where multilateral institutions continue to function very poorly, and where international cooperation only tends to work in an ad hoc manner, when states find they have primary transnational interests in common. So a less important Europe will get the multipolar order it has so craved, which will ironically be characterized by the rise of huge nation-states, increasingly pursuing their own interests at the expense of the ‘global community’. Not exactly what Jacques Delors had in mind.